Well, that didn’t last long. Not one full day removed from winning one of the best games in franchise history, and probably the best game most fans in attendance will ever witness in person, the Twins reminded us of their biggest weakness over the years: an inability to win on baseball’s biggest stage. Watching the Twins blow opportunities while the Yankees cruised was of course frustrating from a fan’s perspective. Still, it’s important to realize that this was a game in which the Twins faced the longest odds. Starting rookie pitcher Brian Duensing 20 hours after a play-in game against C.C. Sabathia put the Twins at probably their biggest disadvantage of any game this series. Despite these long odds, the Twins had their chances but couldn’t make it happen. Unfortunately, they don’t have much time to fix things.
The game started off well enough for the Twins. Duensing navigated the Yankee lineup through the first two innings, allowing only a single to Derek Jeter to lead off the game. The Twins got a leadoff double from Denard Span on the seventh pitch of the at bat. As would become a trend all night, the Twins were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. Orlando Cabrera and Joe Mauer both fanned badly against Sabathia, and Michael Cuddyer flew out harmlessly to end the threat. The Twins finally broke through in the third inning, thanks to a soft liner from Cuddyer for a 1-0 lead. Mauer scored on a passed ball, and suddenly the Twins were leading 2-0 in Yankee stadium, with Duensing looking in control.
It didn’t last long. Jeter bombed one of Duensing’s few mistakes for a two-run homer, but Duensing recovered to retire Mark Texeira and Alex Rodriguez to preserve a 2-2 tie going into the fourth inning. The Twins though, could put nothing else together against Sabathia. They had a threat in the fifth inning, but Mauer stranded Cabrera at second with a groundout. In the seventh, the Twins had their best chance against Sabathia. Down 6-2 after big hits from Nick Swisher and Rodriguez, and a two-run homer from Hideki Matsui off Francisco Liriano, the Twins had runners on second and third with one out and Span at the plate. Span flew out to shallow right, and Cabrera struck out on the tenth pitch of a good battle with Phil Hughes. In short, it was a night of missed opportunities for the Twins. When the Yankees can put up seven runs on a night when they don’t even seem to be clicking, the Twins can ill-afford not to cash in when they have an opportunity. With these things in mind, let’s look at the good and the bad.
First, the bad:
- Gardenhire’s decision to lift Duensing after only 79 pitches was questionable. Hindsight is obviously 20-20, but the bullpen was over-extended from the night before, and one would think Liriano over Duensing was a minimal improvement at best. The move likely did the Yankees a favor by pulling a pitcher who had been handling them fairly well and replacing him with a pitcher whose fastball has been 22 runs below average this year.
- Cabrera’s strikeout in the seventh broke the Twins’ back. It’s hard to criticize Cabrera after his monumental performance against Detroit, but the fact of the matter is that he left Mauer on deck when the game was still within reach. Shortening up his swing in that situation and focusing more on walking than getting a huge hit would have been advisable with the presumptive AL MVP on deck.
- The outfield defense. Despite Ron Darling and Chip Caray’s insistence that the Twins trotted out a great outfield defense, the fact of the matter is that Jason Kubel is an awful option in right, Delmon Young isn’t much better in left, and Denard Span is about average in center (down from truly elite in either corner spot). Out of necessity, Young or Kubel has to play in the outfield, but right now the Twins are letting defender extraordinaire Carlos Gomez ride the bench so that Jose Morales and Brendan Harris can provide a negligible, at best, upgrade over Gomez’s bat. After watching Young and Kubel let at least two balls go for hits that Denard Span probably would have turned into outs (depending on which position Span would have been playing), it’s time for Gardenhire to realize a simple fact: the Twins got hot and made the playoffs in spite of the current outfield/DH alignment, not because of it.
Now, the good
- Brian Duensing set a pretty good tone for the Twins in this series. Duensing’s final numbers look bad (4.2 IP, 7 hits, 1 BB, 1 HR, 5 ER), but those are inflated by Gardenhire’s early hook and the homer Liriano surrendered to Matsui. Asking a rookie pitcher to pitch game one of a playoff series against the Yankees is a tall order. Duensing responded with his typical composure, walking only one batter and giving up very few hard-hit balls. Really, Jeter’s homer was the only pitch that looked like a bad mistake. Even A-Rod’s single in the fifth was on a pretty good pitch (at least, it seemed that way to me). Duensing deserves a pat on the back, and I think he deserved a chance to get out of the fifth.
- Opportunities. While they maddeningly failed to cash in on their chances, the Twins at least had opportunities and looked like they could have gotten to Sabathia. Matt Tolbert and Delmon Young looked completely lost against Sabathia, but Span, Cabrera, Mauer and Cuddyer all got solid hits and Nick Punto went 2-3 with a walk. What we can take from this is that the Twins hitters have showed up and seem perfectly capable of producing in a series where they absolutely have to do so.
- Nick Blackburn takes the hill Friday in a critical game. It’s not literally a must-win, obviously, but the Twins can’t realistically hope to come back from a 2-0 deficit against this team. Strangely, Blackburn seems to be at his best in these sorts of games. Hopefully he brings it tomorrow.
- The Yankees suck.
The odds are longer than they were at the start of the series, but the Twins absolutely can get back in this thing with a big performance on Friday. GO TWINS!